Not because she is with a woman, because of course we are all free to date who we will. But because she wrote a book called Committed that I loved. And I couldn’t help but grieve the loss of the commitment she had made to her former husband. The commitment that started in her Eat, Pray, Love days, and has inspired my life so often over the years since.
There’s something I value about commitment. It is, perhaps, one of my most cherished virtues. Commitment means sticking with something, even when you don’t want to. It means discipline and grit. It means not giving up and truly taking a stand for something in your life. And it makes me sad to think that the woman who literally wrote the book on commitment, traded that commitment for something else: truth.
Is “truth” more valued than commitment?
Today’s culture is all about passion, and following your heart, and following your dreams. It’s about listening to your emotions, or, as Elizabeth Gilbert said in her post “standing in your truth.” But truth is ever-changing. And feelings are fleeting. One day your truth is being married to the man of your dreams, and the next, “a trap door opens” and that truth changes. Passion, dreams, truth. These words are all about the whims of a moment and not necessarily what’s in our best interests in the long-term.
And commitment is all about the long-term. It’s about recognizing the end-goal and fighting through the fleeting feelings of the day in favor of a greater cause. It’s about forsaking the ice cream you want right now in favor of the 30-pound weight loss you expect six months from now. It’s about forgoing a social occasion with friends so you can swim for eight hours and one day win that Olympic gold.
“The heart is a dangerous animal, that’s why our ribs are cages”
Elizabeth Gilbert herself calls out the perils of passions in her most recent book Big Magic. Stating we should adhere to the virtues of curiosity instead. “The stakes of curiosity are far lower then the stakes of passion.” She says, “Passion makes you get divorced and sell all your possessions and shave your head and move to Nepal. Curiosity doesn’t ask nearly so much of you.”
And following your heart? Even in ancient times, the heart was seen as a fickle follow. According to ancient Isrealites, the heart was deceptive and evil. It could easily be swayed by the temptations of a moment, and thus was not to be trusted with matters of long-term importance. It is for this reason that Catholics beat their hearts with their fists during the act of contrition, a penitential prayer meant to make amends for wrong doing. Because, it is our heart that causes us to sin. It is our heart that leads us astray.
Today we see the heart differently. In fact, we worship it. And we’re taught to follow it at all costs. Don’t like your career? Quit and become a fashion blogger! Do you find another man attractive? Divorce your husband and see what else is out there! Never mind the long-term consequences these moves might have on your life, or more importantly, on the lives of those around you.
Does it really make sense to saddle your parents (or your spouse) with your financial burden just so you can “pursue your dreams?” Does it really make sense to leave the man who invested so many years in caring for you just so you can “see what else is out there.” Just because we “follow our heart” doesn’t mean it’s truly the best thing for us. Or for those around us. More often then not, I think, it’s not.
Should we teach children “commitment” or to “follow their hearts?”
Take fashion editor Carine Roitfeld for example. As a child, her mother enrolled her in ballet classes. At the age of six, Carine grew to hate ballet. She wanted to quit and try something else instead. But her mother refused her. She was forced to take ballet for years until one day she grew to love it again and was grateful to have been pushed.
“I was ultimately drawn to the rigorous standards of posture and elegance.” She says, “There is no choice but to keep your chin up in order to look the part. It’s this kind of discipline that attracted me. There really is no easy shortcut to being good at ballet, it’s all about work and willpower.” That discipline instilled in her a level of commitment that led her to a long and lustrous career in the fashion industry.
Now take me for example. As a child I took ballet, but when I stopped enjoying it I quit. I tried tennis lessons, acting classes, voice lessons, and piano lessons. I spent a semester on the track team, another in the improv troupe, and yet another practicing gymnastics. I took tap dancing classes, then cooking classes. I went to fashion school, then nutrition school.
In the end I never stuck with anything long enough to see if I’d really like it. And certainly not long to become good at it. I was allowed to “pursue my passion” wherever that led me. And more often than not, it led me nowhere. Another so-called “passion” that consumed me like a raging fire, until it quickly fizzled out and I was left searching for yet another “passion” that could direct me.
And how many of us who have been allowed to follow our hearts, wish our parents had forced us to stick with something? So that today we’d actually be good at something. We wish we had that discipline. That we’d been forced to stick with something. Because right after ballet sucks, you get good at it. Right when you’re fed up with trying to learn a language, you get fluent. And if we always quit the moment something gets hard, we’ll never enjoy the benefits of what comes after. Of commitment.
Would we be happier if we were forced to commit to something?
And so I pose a question Elizabeth similarly posed in her book Committed: If divorce wasn’t an option would marriages be happier? If you had to stay in one job your entire life, would you enjoy it more? If you had to study one discipline, even if sometimes you hated it, would it feel good to know you’ve achieved absolute mastery at it? In other words, if we valued commitment over “following our hearts,” would we be happier?
I believe so. Because arranged marriages are often happier than marriages of choice. And career-long quarry workers are often happier than those that job hop. And so many performers and athletes are where they are today because they stuck with their discipline for the long haul. Because they were committed.
And so, though Elizabeth has always been, and will continue to be, one of my favorite role models and mentors. And though I was happy for Elizabeth and her new love, that she was able to stand with her through a terrible and possibly fatal illness. There was a small part of me that also felt sad for the loss of her commitment to her husband. That mourned the commitment she has so inspired in me.
Because if there is anything I’ve learned from her amazing books, Eat, Pray, Love, Committed, and Big Magic it’s the value of commitment. Of sticking with something past the perils of passion. Or truth, or heart. Of being dedicated. Because when you commit to something, that’s the sweet spot. That’s where the Big Magic happens. And that is something I once learned from Elizabeth.